Whether it’s chronic, acute or episodic, low back pain is a common problem among adults, causing more disability around the world than any other condition.
At least one-fourth of U.S. adults report having low back pain in the last three months, national survey data shows. And research suggests that as many as 80 percent of adults will experience low back pain at some point in their lives, meaning if you haven’t had it yet and you don’t have it now, there’s a good chance that you will in the future — especially since back pain becomes more frequent with advancing age.
Common causes of lower back pain include overuse injuries (from doing the same form of exercise over and over again), muscle or ligament strains or sprains, trauma (from falling down, for example), degenerative discs, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, and osteoporosis, experts say. Another prime culprit: sedentary behavior. A 2019 study in the journal Applied Ergonomics found an association between static sitting behavior and chronic low back pain among people who worked at a call center.
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Lower back pain is “usually due to a combination of deconditioning and poor body mechanics,” explains Robert Gillanders, a physical therapist in the Charlottesville, Virginia, area. What’s more, a history of back pain likely means there’s more to come. “If you’ve had an injury in the past, you’re probably going to get it again,” he adds.
Remedies for relief
When lower back pain strikes, you don’t need to take it lying down. On the contrary, you should keep moving by walking regularly. “Walking is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for your back,” Gillanders says. “Yet, it’s low hanging fruit that’s not used that often.” Studies have found that walking improves pain levels, disability, quality of life and fear avoidance among people with chronic low back pain.
To relieve low back pain — whether short-term or chronic — you can apply an ice pack or heat (whichever you’d prefer) and use a foam roller to release tension in the lower back, Gillanders recommends. It can also help to engage in diaphragmatic breathing, says Alex Garreau, a physical therapist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. As you inhale slowly, let your belly expand with air, then exhale slowly, allowing your belly to deflate. “This slows down your breathing, which can slow down pain signals and have a calming effect,” Garreau explains.
Some red flags with lower back pain: If the pain radiates down one of your legs, if you have numbness, or weakness or tingling in one (or both) of your legs, or if you experience changes in your bowel or bladder function, call your doctor right away, advises Stacey Cladis, a physical therapist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, because these symptoms could be caused by compression in the spinal cord or nerve compression. Also, if the pain persists for more than a week or is preventing you from doing the activities you need to do, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.
6 exercises to help with pain
To prevent and ease less serious lower back pain, physical therapists recommend doing the following exercises every day, up to twice a day.
1. Supine bridge
Lie on your back with your arms on the floor at your sides, your legs bent at the knees and your feet flat on the floor. Tighten your abdomen and glutes and slowly lift your hips off the floor, while keeping your back straight. Then, slowly lower your butt and hips back down to the floor. Do 10 repetitions.
2. Bird Dog
Get down on all fours, with your hands on the floor directly under both shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Keep your head in line with your spine and lift your right arm forward and your left leg straight behind you until they are both parallel to the floor. Pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat with the left arm and the right leg. Be sure to keep your abdominal muscles tight, your back flat and your hips level throughout the exercise. Do 10 repetitions on each side.
3. Cat Camel
Start on all fours, with your hands on the floor directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Tuck your chin toward your chest and slowly round your back up toward the ceiling; pause for a couple of seconds, then slowly draw your shoulders away from your ears, relax your back and arch it slightly while gazing ahead of you. Return to the starting position. Do 10 repetitions.
4. Child’s Pose
While you’re still on your hands and knees, push your butt back onto your heels, with your knees apart. Lower your upper body between your knees, stretch your arms along the floor above your head and place your forehead on or near the floor. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds.
5. Double Knee-to-Chest Stretch
Lie on your back with both legs bent and your feet flat on the floor. Lift your feet, pull both knees toward your chest and hug them with your arms. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds, while keeping your back relaxed against the floor. Then, release. Repeat this stretch a few times.
6. Lower Back Rotation Stretch
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Keep your shoulders flat on the floor and your knees together as you let them slowly roll to the right side of your body. Pause for five seconds, then slowly return your knees to the starting position. Then, slowly let your knees roll to the left side of your body; pause for five seconds then return to the starting position. Repeat this several times on each side.
A word of warning: As you do these exercises, be sure to listen to your body and heed its messages. “If something is hurting, don’t do it,” Cladis says. “You can aggravate your symptoms if you’re trying to push through the pain.”
Preventing Back Pain
Some types of reoccurring back pain can be prevented. Here are 10 ways to help keep your back healthy:
- Exercise regularly to keep muscles strong and flexible.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat a healthy diet and make sure you get enough calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D.
- Use ergonomically designed furniture and equipment at home and at work.
- If you sit a lot at work, switch sitting positions often. Also, get up every now and then and walk around the office or stretch to relieve muscle tension.
- Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.
- Sleep on a firm surface. Sleeping on your side in a fetal position can help relieve pressure on the spine.
- Don’t try to lift objects that are too heavy.
- When you do lift something, lift from the knees and do not twist when lifting. Pull stomach muscles in and keep your head down and in line with a straight back.
- Quit smoking. Smoking reduces blood flow to the lower spine, which can contribute to spinal disc degeneration. Smoking also disrupts healing.
Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Stacey Colino is an award-winning writer, specializing in health, psychology and science. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Prevention, Newsweek, Parade and many other national magazines.